Gay Studies

Andrew Grossman. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Gay studies in the early twenty-first century is a lively interdisciplinary field encompassing studies of literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, the visual arts, indeed all fields in which nonheteronormative sexuality—and its institutionalized suppression—has become a point of politico-philosophical argument. It has two origins: a more recent starting point in twentieth-century liberal Western discourse, prompted by gay liberation and political and social movements on the one hand, and intellectual trends in literary theory and philosophy on the other, and the much older fact of same-sex love, a facet of human history that permeates and predates recorded civilization. Gay studies is today closely linked to notions of the democratic struggle for civil equality, because the sexual practices that are its focus have been the target of authoritarian forces as diverse as Judeo-Christianity, Puritanism, Neo-Confucianism, psychiatry, Nazism, Maoism, and McCarthyism, all of which have variously punished non-normative sexual practices to promote conformist, repressive political structures. In other times and places, however, while sexuality was always subject to societal pressures to conform, patterns of repression and acceptance varied considerably.

Premodern Traditions of Same-Sex Love in the West

Though classical Greek homosexuality became a romantic, wistful reference point for Victorian, Edwardian, and modern Anglo-American homoerotic literature, its relative cultural norms must not be conflated with bourgeois romance or twentieth-century sexual democracy. The early Stoics, for example, rationally argued for gender and sexual equality and removed conventional morality from the discussion of sex, and Zeno of Citium (c. 335-263 B.C.E.), father of the Stoics, “never resorted to a women, but always to boy-favorites,” according to his biographer Antigonus of Carystus, quoted by Louis Crompton. A more typical example of ancient Greek attitudes toward sexuality can be found in Plato’s Academy, founded circa 387 B.C.E. Here, convention dictated a bisexual model of intergenerational mentorship and pederasty, whereby men fulfilled social obligations for marital, procreative sex while erotically tutoring beardless, flowering adolescent boys. For two adult male citizens to form permanent relationships was infrequent and slightly transgressive; yet the taxonomy of love found in Plato’s Symposium, the greatest text on Greek eros, finds mundane heterosexuality pedestrian in contrast to an idealized vision of male love. Nevertheless, in his ultimate work, the Laws, an elderly Plato ascetically renounces erotic life. The only documentation for Greek female homosexuality is found in the fragmentary verses of the poet Sappho (fl. c. 610-c. 580 B.C.E.), whose literary influence has nonetheless been significant.

Homosexuality was common during the Roman Empire, but in this period militarism and imperialism turned Platonic mentorship into hedonistic relations between imperialistic Roman masters and conquered, penetrated slaves—a possible source of contemporary formulaic oppositions of masculine-aggressive and feminine-passive sexual and gender roles. Juvenal satirized a widespread homosexuality perceived as base and undignified, but Roman literature elsewhere bustles with lively homoerotica, most obviously in Petronius’s Satyricon, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the verse of Catullus and Virgil. With the rise of Judeo-Christian morality, antihomosexual prohibitions such as the infamous passages in Leviticus 20:13 crept into Western thought, prompting the emperor Justinian, in 533 C.E., to make homosexuality a capital offense in his Corpus juris civilis (Body of civil law), thus foreshadowing the Christian animus toward homosexuality throughout Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and Renaissance times.

Until recently, the image in the West of homosexual life in the succeeding centuries was grim. In the Middle Ages, sodomites were burned along with witches (the origin of the epithet “faggot”); in the Renaissance Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was charged with espousing blasphemous (that is, homosexual) sentiments; and in 1644 the Puritans infamously banned all English theater, fearing licentiousness stemming from both the cross-dressed boys who played women’s roles and the unladylike introduction of female actors in 1629. The Renaissance Neoplatonists abstracted Socratic male love into a purely intellectual bond, and in 1767 the first English rendition of Plato’s Symposium was deliberately mistranslated to remove all elements of homosexuality.

More recent scholarship, however, has challenged this picture of unrelenting homophobia. Biblical revisionists now speculate that the Levitican prohibitions were more narrowly targeted than they appear, intended only to quash blasphemies and paganisms the Bible associated with sodomites (1 Kings 14:24), or to curb male prostitution and public bawdry. In the 1990s, scholars from the Conservative Judaic tradition interpreted homosexuality as no more sinful than not keeping kosher, breaking the Sabbath, or violating any of the other 613 Talmudic commandments. More controversially, John Boswell’s landmark studies Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994) offer highly contested evidence that until the Middle Ages the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches actually condoned homosexuality and sanctioned pseudomarital homosexual partnerships.

Similarly, a wealth of new studies of Renaissance and early modern Europe offer a far more complicated picture of gender and sexuality. Nevertheless, the insights from early gay and lesbian studies of the 1970s remain significant. These studies rejected the Augustinian split between mind and body, identified sexual orientation in terms of undeniable desire and not repressible behavior, and reclaimed male and female homosexuality as two sets of desire distinct from both heterosexual power structures and each other. Though by current standards insufficiently nuanced, this liberal platform offered a critique of Western Christian thinking that nevertheless provided an important outline of the interrelationship between homophobia and misogyny that remains a significant cultural inheritance. Within this paradigm, the female body was perceived mainly as a procreative vessel, and female pleasure was considered nearly irrelevant prior to the discoveries and theories of Sigmund Freud (1859-1939). Homosexuality, meanwhile, was reductively understood as a corruptive male sodomy that produces the passive, womanly, and thus powerless identities into which patriarchal men fear falling. Male homosexuals, exercising the power of Christian free will, could redeem themselves by mastering (or, in Freudian terms, sublimating) their desires, as Augustine suggests; disempowered women, however, officially had no desires to willfully redeem, though they were, paradoxically, still open to charges of sinful lust.

Non-Western Traditions

Anthropologists have documented a wide range of attitudes toward sexuality in tribal and small-scale societies, which tend to be more egalitarian and to tolerate a far wider range of sexual behaviors, perhaps because where there are no significant forms of inherited wealth, sex can be more easily separated from procreation. Nevertheless, many small-scale societies developed elaborate forms of sexual identities and rituals, including “third sex” figures such as the Polynesian mahu and Native American “two-spirit person” (formerly referred to as “the berdache”), and the male-male semen ingestion rituals of Melanesia. None of these phenomena, still less others such as the cross-dressed performances common in shamanic ritual or the Indian phenomenon of the hijra (a broad category encompassing eunuchs and gender-ambiguous persons), are easily interpreted within Western notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality, but all of them attest to the rich variability of human sexual desire and gender performance.

In state-level societies characterized by hierarchies of class, wealth, and power, in contrast, patriarchy was the rule. Nevertheless, some forms of same-sex love were tolerated and even encouraged, often in hierarchical forms that allowed elite males to explore their desires through rarefied aesthetics of same-sex eroticism. In imperial China, for example, one finds homosexuality among the emperors of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), and the cross-dressing gender performance of Beijing and Cantonese opera, ranked among the most esteemed of all Chinese arts. Though Neo-Confucianists worried homosexuality would threaten family stability, an epicurean aesthetic of male love was routine among dynastic aristocrats, as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.) anthology Duan xiu pan (Records of the cut sleeve) attests. In Japan, an intergenerational tradition of sexual mentoring—not too different from Plato’s—was customary and honorable between older samurai (nenja) and adolescent initiates (wakashu), and during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) bisexual “connoisseurs of boys” (shōjin-zuki) vied for the affections of young Kabuki actors, who typically doubled as male prostitutes, mainly for the merchant classes. Japan’s bisexual ethos is present even in its greatest literary classic, Tale of Genji (early eleventh century), whose rakish hero sleeps with boys as well as women, while Ihara Saikaku, famous for The Great Mirror of Male Love (1687) and The Life of a Sensuous Man (1682), is arguably the world’s first author of commercially produced homosexual and bisexual erotica.

The Medicalized, Industrialized Nation-State

The French Revolution’s republican ideologies prompted much of Europe to reexamine its anachronistic, antigay worldview: The Napoleonic Code in 1810, Bavaria in 1813, and Spain in 1822 all legalized consensual homosexuality. With the rise of nineteenth-century industrialism, however, homosexuality was no longer only a sinful offense to God, but a social offense to an emerging bourgeois state attempting to manufacture conformist, nationalistic, and procreative-cum-capitalistic values. Thus was the stage set for modernity’s first gay-rights struggle. Under an umbrella of progressive medical science and the burgeoning discipline of psychology, early German gay-rights activists sought to debunk the 1851 Prussian penal code’s antigay Paragraph 143, asserting that same-sex attraction was not a sin borne of Christian free will but an innate, genetic trait beyond one’s control. In 1864 Karl Heinrich Ulrichs began publishing his multipart, pseudoscientific Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Researches into the riddle of “man-manly” love), which theorized homosexuality as a natural mental “hermaphroditism” causing discontinuities between gender and sexual object choice. Continuing Ulrichs’s notion of genetic abnormality, in 1869 Karl Westphal, a German physician, described a condition of “contrary” sexuality, of masculine women and effeminate men, a view later echoed by the German neuropsychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886; Sexual psychopathology). Though Westphal opposed punishment of homosexuality, he believed contrary sexuality could be remedied—unlike Ulrichs, who passionately pled for open tolerance. In English, Westphal’s “contrary” sexuality became mistranslated as “inversion,” a term popularized by Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (1896), whose humanistic case studies argued that “inverts” should live as productive citizens, not be punished for received, arbitrary genetics. Perhaps more progressive was Karl Maria Benkert (creator of the word homosexual), who in 1869 published tracts that sought to undermine the Prussian penal code and rebuked Ulrichs’s special pleadings, and instead advanced sexual egalitarianism based on French Revolutionary principles.

The most celebrated early gay scholar was the German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (coiner of the termtransvestite), who first argued for sexual broadmindedness in Sappho und Sokrates (1896) and Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (1899-1923; Yearbook for intermediate sexual types) the world’s first homosexually themed journal, which suggested that homosexuals constituted a “third,” intermediate sex. In 1919 Hirschfeld founded his Institute for Sexual Science—eventually torched by the Nazis in 1933—and cowrote the screenplay for the world’s first gay film, Anders als die Andern (Different from the others), which again pleads for homosexual tolerance on medical-genetic grounds. Hirschfeld, certainly, was marginal within the psychological community, and Freud’s idea of an arrested latent stage, as coupled with an unresolved Oedipal complex, became the accepted model of homosexual identity until the contemporary gay-rights movement. Unlike Westphal and Krafft-Ebing, Freud viewed homosexuality not as an inborn defect but as a commonplace neurosis no worse than any other, and in 1930 he signed a public statement calling for the repeal of Paragraph 175 (an 1871 revision of Paragraph 143), which the Nazis would soon use to persecute homosexuals.

Undoubtedly, the pathologization of homosexuality affected all spheres of contemporary art and culture: Homosexual or bi-sexual authors such as Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) endured psychological torment because of their efforts to suppress their illicit desires, Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and Thomas Mann (1875-1955) framed their homosexualities as upper-class neurosis and decadence, and those who dared de-closet themselves risked the imprisonment Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) suffered, even if, occasionally, the romantic, private verse of an Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) or A. E. Housman (1859-1936) covertly legitimized a tender gay sensibility. When Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness—currently regarded as the first lesbian novel—first appeared in 1928, audiences were shocked that its tale of “sexual inversion” was presented in heroic, albeit tragic, terms. Immediately banned in Britain, it became the focus of notorious obscenity trials, and then a touchstone for early lesbian rights movements. Meanwhile, the nations of a rapidly modernizing Asia suppressed (or, in the case of Maoist China, erased) their millenniaold homosexual histories and blindly adopted Western medical prejudice. Japanese homosexuality would reappear (albeit with Western notions of shame attached) only in 1948 with Yukio Mishima’s Kamen no kokuhaku(Confessions of a mask), and in the early twenty-first century consensual homosexuality remains illegal in communist China, whose memory-impaired leaders insist it is a decadent, Western illness.

Nevertheless, the antibourgeois anarchism that fueled the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions also birthed a tentative, fleeting acceptance of modern homosexuality, and the 1922 Bolshevik criminal code officially legalized consensual sodomy. Though a paranoid Joseph Stalin, the Soviet premier, would fully recriminalize homosexuality in 1933, the antibourgeois radicalism first witnessed in Russia still ignites much of modern and postmodern (homo)sexual discourse.

Militancy and Visibility: The Assertion of Gay Identity

The contemporary gay-rights movement is usually traced to the riots that began on June 28, 1969, when patrons at Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn refused to submit to the lewdness arrests gay men regularly endured at the time. There were, however, liberal precedents in Henry Gerber’s short-lived Society for Human Rights (1924), the first gay-rights organization in the United States, and Communist Party leader Harry Hay’s homophilic Mattachine Society (1950) and its sister lesbian organization, Daughters of Bilitis (1955). Meanwhile, under the nose of McCarthyism a contentious, frequently prosecuted homosexual subculture newly awakened through avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger’sFireworks (1947), Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959), Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964), and the gay-positive “physique” artistry of Bob Mizer, Bruce Bellas, and Tom of Finland. But it was Stonewall’s unprecedented militant visibility politics that delivered gays and lesbians from the closet and into the mainstream.

The years following 1969 witnessed the Gay Liberation Front; The Boys in the Band (1970), Hollywood’s first gay film; John Murphy’s Homosexual Liberation: A Personal View (1971); The Journal of Homosexuality (1974); and (heterosexual) psychologist George Weinberg’s Society and the Healthy Homosexual (1972), whose neologismhomophobia identified public prejudice, not the homosexual, as neurotic. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association—mainly to appease post-Stonewall politics—declassified homosexuality as a pathology in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), though the DSM-IV persists in recognizing a “gender identity disorder,” implying that homosexual men and women are healthy only insofar as they respectively behave according to masculine-aggressive and feminine-passive gender stereotypes. In the 1970s and 1980s, psychiatry’s patriarchal conservatism became a favorite target of lesbian feminists, most notably Monique Wittig, whose revolutionary declaration that lesbians were “not women” rejected Freud’s mystifying construction of female sexuality and removed lesbians from the stifling female roles patriarchy had mandated.

In 1970 University of Nebraska professor Louis Crompton created academia’s first gay studies class; in 1972 the first gay studies program in the United States was initiated at California State University, Sacramento. While initially gay studies sought to deconstruct the fallacious nineteenth-century medicalization of homosexuality (thus, the substitution of the nonstigmatic gay), and resist what Adrienne Rich would later call patriarchy’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” by the mid-1970s gay academics began turning to literature, resuscitating the tacitly recognized but largely unexamined homosexualities of authors whose canonical status could legitimize a tentative field susceptible to ridicule. The sexual orientations of Lord Byron, André Gide, Walt Whitman, and W. H. Auden were no longer incidental, but central to a critical literary approach to text, voice, subjectivity, and especially intentionality. Conservatives balked when gay scholars read Herman Melville’s Billy Budd or Shakespearean sonnets as coded gay texts, but reader-response critics also argued that an author’s sexuality was irrelevant, because all textual meaning is not received frozen from history but is an active, contemporary creation of a (sexually) empowered subjectivity. Nevertheless, a secondary gay canon emerged around definitively gay authors such as E. M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, Edward Carpenter, Jean Genet, and Gertrude Stein, and gay studies began intersecting with film studies to address the leftist gay cinemas of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rosa von Praunheim, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Derek Jarman. But only in the late 1970s and early 1980s, under the guidance of lesbian feminism and multiculturalism, would once-Eurocentric gay academia fully embrace the likes of Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes, and Langston Hughes.

From Gay Identity to Queer Theory

By the 1980s, gay studies came to a critical turning point. Its achievements were clear: A body of theory had emerged that legitimized nonreproductive sexualities, locating sexual desire in politically marginalized yet physically expressive bodies, and exploring how those bodies operated, or were operated upon, within repressive political climates. But if placing gay and lesbian bodies in opposition to marital and economic norms offered the pleasures of subversion and righteous indignation, it also doomed them to permanent pariah status. Moreover, there was a growing awareness that gay studies, like the earlier disciplines it critiques, risked producing its own essentialized core gender identities, based upon a naturalized gay identity that still perceived anatomy and biology as inescapable. Missing from these formulations were the often polymorphous forms of gender identity and polyamorous quality of desire. The AIDS crisis, which took its toll throughout the 1980s to Reaganite-Thatcherite indifference, also fueled calls for a new, more radical politics. Queer theory responded by abandoning the neo-Marxism and social activism of gay rights, and built upon Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1978-1984) and literary poststructuralism to argue that both sexuality and gender are social constructions produced within specific historical contexts. Queer social constructionism decouples sexuality from gender, abandoning any notion of sexual orientation as biologically determined. Male and female are no longer biological polarities but malleable constructs, and thus gender and sexuality (straight or gay) no longer automatically follow from one another. Sexual desire is not perceived as fixed and inherent in the body, but as a culturally created response that may or may not be related to a fixed social identity. Incorporating all categories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and even voluntary heterosexual desire, “queer,” by having no definitive “Other” to mobilize against, represents everything and nothing, and posits a suprademocratic category through which identities—of class and race as well—can radically hybridize and transform.

The same intellectual ferment that began to define gay as retrogressive and queer as politically progressive inspired a new academic vocabulary. The word homophobia, for example, came under new scrutiny in the mid-1980s. Though it astutely characterized sexual bigotry as a passively received mass neurosis and not a moral choice, Weinberg’s term was now seen as etymologically illogical, literally meaning a fear of sameness but figuratively suggesting a fear of otherness. Homophobia was replaced with heterosexism, emphasizing not a special “phobia” but a chauvinism as banally evil as sexism or racism. Heteronormative, popularized by queer theorist Michael Warner in the early 1990s, moves beyond heterosexism’s critique of mere prejudice to challenge the ways patriarchy—especially the patriarchy implicit in late global capitalism—normalizes essential gender identity and punishes all nonheterosexual conduct. Perhaps most influential is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s neologism homosocial, introduced in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), which argues that heterosexual social institutions, particularly marriage, have historically used women to triangulate and transmit male bonds that, while not actually homosexual, transitively accrue ambiguous homoerotic meanings. After much overuse, however, the parameters of homosociality have become (perhaps deliberately) vague, and there is a tendency to overoptimistically describe all same-sex, homosocial institutions—schools, prisons, monasteries, and so on—as fertile breeding grounds for imagined or potential homosexualities, regardless of those environments’ coercive or insular qualities.

More recently, theorists such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have linked queer and postcolonial arguments to investigate how, even in the postmodern world of hybrids and multiple subjectivities, Asian and African nation-states continue to regulate sexual identity and suppress female agency in accordance with colonialist mentalities that they, in a postcolonial era, have failed to progress beyond, and often unwittingly internalize. Most radical has been Judith Butler, whose notion of “performativity,” first introduced in Gender Trouble (1990) and later refined in Bodies That Matter(1993), maintains that gender is not simply a construct into which humans are historically delivered, but is a mask, a controllable, conscious act of mimicry, parody, and self-parody, as best represented in drag performance. After Butler, however, queer theory’s drive to reimagine sexuality without boundaries or definitions seemed to reach an impasse. One emergent critique sees the elegant philosophical games and abstruse language of authors such as Butler and Spivak as elitist, and questioned whether such texts can be effective political tools for inspiring large-scale cultural change. Some authors even question the concept of Butlerian performativity, dismissing it as stylistic gamesmanship. While queer theorists might argue that questions of rhetoric and performance are key to sociopolitical norms and thus to their transformation, the critique of queer theory as elitist and jargon-filled has nonetheless been widely perceived as justified. Some gay scholars have, in response, recast queer theory in more populist terms, as does Warner in The Trouble with Normal (2000), in which he suggests that by seeking marriage rights, gays and lesbians misguidedly try to legitimatize their sexualities through an oppressively monogamous, proprietary, shame-based institution that forbids constructions of freer sexuality.

As national debates about gay marriage and civil rights continue, the gay identity politics queer postmodernism hoped to replace are making a resurgence. Recent years have seen a slightly less radical interpretation of queerness, which, lest it unintentionally reproduce an intolerant, authoritarian voice within queer communities, should also potentially include identity-based gay activism and oppositional lesbian feminism.

Indeed, as increased gay/queer visibility in film, television, and other popular media has only inflamed the fears of social conservatives, a diversified strategy of neopragmatic gay activism and utopian queer theory may be necessary to neutralize prejudices ingrained throughout the centuries.